The Bielefeld conspiracy (German: Bielefeldverschwörung or Bielefeld-Verschwörung, pronounced [ˈbiːləfɛltfɛɐ̯ˌʃvøːʁʊŋ]) is a satirical conspiracy theory that claims that the city of Bielefeld, Germany, does not exist, but is an illusion propagated by various forces. First posted on the German Usenet in 1994, the conspiracy has since been mentioned in the city's marketing, and alluded to in a speech by Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The story goes that the city of Bielefeld (population of 336,352 as of December 2016[update]) in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia does not actually exist. Rather, its existence is merely propagated by an entity known only as SIE ("they" in German, always in block capitals), which has conspired with the authorities to create the illusion of the city's existence.
The theory poses three questions:
- Do you know anybody from Bielefeld?
- Have you ever been to Bielefeld?
- Do you know anybody who has ever been to Bielefeld?
A majority are expected to answer no to all three queries. Anybody claiming knowledge about Bielefeld is promptly disregarded as being in on the conspiracy, or having been themselves deceived.
The origins of and reasons for this conspiracy are not a part of the original theory. Speculated originators jokingly include the CIA, Mossad, or aliens who use Bielefeld University as a disguise for their spaceship.
The conspiracy theory was first made public in a posting to the newsgroup
de.talk.bizarre on 16 May 1994 by Achim Held, a computer science student at the University of Kiel. When a friend of Achim Held met someone from Bielefeld at a student party in 1993, he said "Das gibt's doch gar nicht", a phrase comparable to "I don't believe it", signifying disbelief or surprise. However, its literal translation is "That does not exist", thus suggesting (ambiguously) not only that claim wasn't real but also that the town isn't real either. From there, it spread throughout the German-speaking Internet community, and has lost little of its popularity, even after 27 years.
In a television interview conducted for the tenth anniversary of the newsgroup posting, Held stated that this myth definitely originated from his Usenet posting which was intended only as a joke. According to Held, the idea for the conspiracy theory formed in his mind at a student party while speaking to an avid reader of New Age magazines, and from a car journey past Bielefeld at a time when the exit from the Autobahn to it was closed.
There are a number of conflicting theories about the reasons behind the joke's gain in popularity, the most popular being a flame war between Usenet admins and the Bielefeld-based Z-Netz BBS about text encodings.
Historian Alan Lessoff notes that a reason for the amusement value of the theory is Bielefeld's lack of notable features, as being home to no major institutions or tourist attractions and not being on the course of a major river, "Bielefeld defines nondescript".
The Bielefeld conspiracy remains one of the most popular internet jokes originating in Germany.
In November 2012, German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the conspiracy in public when talking about a town hall meeting she had attended in Bielefeld, adding: "... if it exists at all", and "I had the impression that I was there."
The city council of Bielefeld made efforts to generate publicity for Bielefeld and build a nationally known public image of the city. However, even 10 years after the conspiracy started, the mayor's office still received phone calls and e-mails which claimed to doubt the existence of the city.
In 1999, five years after the myth started to spread, the city council released a press statement titled Bielefeld gibt es doch! (Bielefeld does exist!) on April Fools' Day. In allusion to the origin of the conspiracy the 800th anniversary of Bielefeld was held in 2014 under the motto Das gibt's doch gar nicht (That cannot be real).
In August 2019, the council offered to give 1 million euros to any person who could provide "incontrovertible evidence" of its nonexistence in an effort to increase interest in the city. As no one was able to prove Bielefeld's non-existence, the city therefore sees its existence as conclusive and the conspiracy as ended. To commemorate it, the city errected a glacial erratic block in the historic center near the Leineweber monument. A QR code on it directs to further background information.
In 2009, film students at Bielefeld University started a project to develop a feature film based on the Bielefeld conspiracy. The project was financed by the university and local sponsors. Most of the project's staff and actors were students or university employees; a few professionals, such as the actress Julia Kahl and the cameraman Alexander Böke, also joined the project. The screenplay was written by Thomas Walden. The film premiered in Bielefeld on 2 June 2010.
Similar satirical conspiracy theories
- Tom Scott (19 October 2015). "The Bielefeld Conspiracy". YouTube.
- von Lüpke, Marc. "'Ich habe die Bielefeld-Verschwörung unterschätzt'" ['I underestimated the Bielefeld Conspiracy']. Der Spiegel (in German). Retrieved 16 May 2014.
- "Auch Merkel zweifelt an Existenz Bielefelds" (in German), Die Welt, November 27, 2012 (retrieved May 7, 2013).
- "Bielefeld - Aktuelle Einwohnerzahlen" (in German). Archived from the original on 2017-02-28. Retrieved 2017-04-01.
- Die Bielefeld-Verschwörung – German page detailing the conspiracy, as originally setup by Achim Held in 1994. (in German)
- Germany's Latest Conspiracy Theory at the Deutsche Welle website
- The first newsgroup posting (Archived version at Google Groups) (in German)
- Transcript of the TV interview with Achim Held in 2004 Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine (in German)
- "Der Mann hinter der großen Bielefeld-Verschwörung". Die Welt (in German). 2013-01-23.
- Alan Lessoff (28 February 2015). Where Texas Meets the Sea: Corpus Christi and Its History. University of Texas Press. pp. 17–18. ISBN 978-0-292-76823-9.
- Philippe Blanchard; Dimitri Volchenkov (23 October 2008). Mathematical Analysis of Urban Spatial Networks. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 11–12. ISBN 978-3-540-87829-2.
- Jensen, K. Thor (21 August 2019). "The Bielefeld conspiracy: A German city is offering $1.1 million to prove it doesn't exist". Newsweek. Retrieved 22 August 2019.
- "German city offers $1.1M to whoever proves it doesn't exist". AP News. 21 August 2019. Retrieved 22 August 2019.
- "'Bielefeld exists!': How a German city debunked an old conspiracy". thelocal.de. 2019-09-18. Retrieved 2020-12-09.
- Bielefake-Satire – Wir sehen uns nur in dieser Welt ... at Spiegel Online (2010-6-4) (in German)
- Die Bielefeld Verschwörung on IMDb
- Schwamle, Bill (March 13, 2018). "The Origins of 'Wyoming Doesn't Exist' Unveils Mischievous Cat". My Country 95.5. Retrieved 2020-10-20.
- Ball, James (16 April 2018). "Australia doesn't exist! And other bizarre geographic conspiracies that won't go away". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
- Leggieri, Antonio (5 October 2015). "Il Molise non esiste!". Il Fatto Quotidiano (in Italian). Retrieved 24 November 2020.
- Brooks, Darío (26 March 2019). "Tlaxcala: por qué 500 años después en México no perdona la alianza tlaxcalteca con el conquistador Hernán Cortés". BBC (in Spanish). Retrieved 17 December 2020.
- Günther Butkus, ed. (2010). Rätselhaftes Bielefeld. Die Verschwörung (in German). Pendragon. ISBN 978-3-86532-188-6.
- Thomas Walden (2010). Die Bielefeld-Verschwörung. Der Roman zum Film (in German). Pendragon. ISBN 978-3-86532-194-7.
- Thomas Walden (2012). Drachenzeit in Bielefeld: Aufgabe 2 der Bielefeld Verschwörung (in German). tredition. ISBN 978-3-8472-3859-1.
- Karl-Heinz von Halle (2013). Gibt es Bielefeld oder gibt es Bielefeld nicht? (in German). Eichborn-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-8479-0546-2.